Rick Zamperin: NHL players should go back to the Olympics

Edmonton Oilers centre Connor McDavid (97) takes a faceoff against Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (34) during first period NHL action in Toronto, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

When two of the brightest stars in the NHL make their voices heard about playing for their respective countries at the Olympics, the league should listen up.

After Sunday’s epic World Junior Hockey Championship gold medal game in which Canada beat Russia, Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews were asked about the possibility of playing in the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.

Their response was, predictably, in sync — they want to play.

“I think a lot of guys take a lot of pride in playing for their country,” said Matthews.

“The Olympics, you know, is the top of the tops as far as that goes.”

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The National Hockey League did not send its players to the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, South Korea after commissioner Gary Bettman said the three-week break in the middle of the season would be ‘incredibly disruptive.’

Yet, under Bettman, the league sent NHLers to the Olympics in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014 — all of which caused a lengthy disruption during the regular season.

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Let’s not kid ourselves here. This all comes down to money and that’s where the NHL, NHL Players’ Association, International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation can’t come to an agreement.

The IOC had covered the cost of travel, insurance and accommodations for NHL players prior to the 2018 Games — something it doesn’t do for other Olympic athletes — but it refused to continue footing the bill, and even after the IIHF offered to put up $20 million Bettman pulled the plug.

The IIHF has given the NHL until Aug. 31 to announce its decision on the 2022 Olympics and there’s been no indication that Bettman is going to change his mind.

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But the National Hockey League must think about the big picture.

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The league should get creative by selling sponsorships to help lighten the financial load, start the 2021-22 season a tad earlier so the schedule isn’t so scrunched, and work on a cost-sharing agreement with the NHLPA, IOC and IIHF that works for all sides.

While it may cost tens of millions of dollars and put the season on hold, the NHL should send McDavid, Matthews and its greatest players to the Olympics, because not seeing the best hockey players on the planet represent their country on the grandest stage is a shame.

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